Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The 1863 Parnell tornado

An Oklahoma, USA, tornado. Image from Wikipedia.

My thanks to everyone who contacted me last week, expressing some concern at the coincidence of a silence of posts here on the blog, at the same time as a tornado struck parts of the Auckland region. Fortunately, the winds stayed clear both of where I was that day (central city) and where I live (Avondale).

But, finding again the reports of an earlier tornado which gave a hard time to the settlers in 1863, I thought it timely to put them up here.


A most extraordinary whirlwind swept through Parnell yesterday, rooting up and destroying everything in its course; and it is indeed wonderful and providential that we have not to record fatal or other accidents of a more serious nature than have occurred.

Up to three o'clock in the afternoon the weather was fine, when the wind suddenly changed to about north-west, and brought both wind and rain. A few minutes before 4 o'clock a very heavy shower fell, during which there were some flashes of lightning and a slight clap of thunder. The heavy rain had driven everyone almost within doors; and to this providential circumstance must be attributed the absence of further personal casualties than we shall presently record. The approach of the whirlwind, which came from the direction of Shoal Bay, was so sudden that it was hardly noticed until its destroying force was felt in the main thoroughfare of Parnell.

Like a huge irregular column of smoke varying in its density and diameter, it entered Parnell near the bottom of the main road leading to Auckland, and the first house it struck was that of Mr. Gilbert, the carpenter, a small cottage on the west side of the road, the chimney of which was instantly demolished, level with the roof, beside other damage being done. It then crossed to the other side of the road, and struck Mr George's butcher's shop, and the Rutland store, doing great damage to both buildings. Part of the verhandah of the latter was blown away, and subsequently found in the Domain ; and the front of the shop was knocked in, and the bottles, usually exhibited in a grocer's shop, and the window-glass, fell in one complete state of smash into the road-way.

The course taken by the whirlwind seemed to be a zig-zag one; for at one time it covered the buildings abutting on the street, and at another it flew along at the rear of them, carrying destruction with it. In the neighbourhood of it the air was literally filled with broken pieces of timber, planks and portions of roofs bodily raised up and carried a great distance. Mr. Johnson of the Windsor Castle is one of the greatest sufferers. The whirlwind passed close at the rear of his Hotel, unroofing a large building used for kitchens and bedrooms, and destroying property both inside and outside of considerable value. Five barrels of beer were stove in, and of course destroyed, and the contents of the yard, and the out-buildings all suffered more or less. Still keeping at the rear of the shops it swept over the back premises of Mr. Canning, baker, and Mr Eley, butcher, destroying the bakehouse of the former and the back premises of the latter, and making havoc with everything it passed over. These and other buildings in tho neighbourhood are the property of Mr. Johnson, of the Windsor Castle, who estimates his loss at about £800. It would be impossible to particularise all the damage that was done by the whirlwind as it swept onwards; chimneys, closets, and fowl-houses were here and there lifted up and carried away in pieces, or bodily, no one knew where; gates were lifted off their hinges, or driven in by stray masses of timber, with the force of a battering ram; and here and there the roofs of dwelling-houses fell into the rooms, and smashing all beneath them.

The verandah of Mr. George, butcher's shop, was carriod 300 or 400 yards up the street, and obligingly left at the gate of Major Matson's ; and a policeman who was standing under it at the time was lifted up, and thrown down, and rolled about on the ground, and bruised, and otherwise most unmercifully treated. The next place where the damage was most perceptible was where two dwelling houses stood, one on each side of Mr. Dillon Bell's, the farthest of which is owned by Mr. Craig. The damage to the roofs and other portions of both these buildings was very great; but singularly enough the whirlwind left Mr. Bell's house intact, excepting that the gate was lifted from its hinges and a portion of the verandah blown down.

On reaching the site of Mr. Hunter's building establishment, which consisted of a very large wooden building on the top of Parnell road, a scene of destruction was presented which almost beggars description. One mass of broken timbers extending over an area of perhaps a quarter of an acre, was all that remained to the view of the casual observer. The way in which this building was demolished was peculiar, the destroying element having, it would appear, entered through the doors, and exploded inside, blowing the building to pieces, levelling the greater portion to the ground, and carrying numerous large and small fragments of the timber in every direction with an irresistible force. One large piece of timber was hurled against the entrance gate of Mr. Lusk's house, which it smashed in, and the roof of one of the apartments fell through; there being fortunately no one in it at the time. Another large mass of timber fell through the roof of the Bishop's library. The galvanised iron blockhouse recently erected on the top of the hill was swept bodily, the greater portion of it being deposited in Mr. Hay's paddock a quarter of a mile off, and sheets of the galvanised iron were found near at hand, twisted in all conceivable shapes, and even torn to shreds in some instances. When the storm first came on, a number of little children, who had been playing about in the neighbourhood, took shelter under the lee of the block-house, and when it was carried away, a piece of the timber or other material struck one of the children, a little girl, and broke her arm. Luckily, all the churches escaped, with the exception of some slight damage done to the Roman Catholic place of worship, close at the back of which the whirlwind passed.

After sweeping the blockhouse clean away, it took the direction of the Tamaki; and there is no knowing, at present, what damage it may not have done after leaving Auckland. There were several persons who received wounds and bruises, but fortunately no lives were lost. A young lad had his leg broken; a Mr. Soales was very seriously cut about the face by some falling timber; and another person received a scalp wound ; but no doubt there have been other casualties though not very serious, or we should have heard of them. All the above occurred within the space of a few minutes, and the people then began to look about to see the extent of the damage, many thinking, no doubt, that theirs had been the most severe. The street was strewed with timbers, and the broken shop fronts and unroofed and demolished buildings presented a pitiable appearance, considering the loss that must fall upon the sufferers.

Mr. Hunter's (the builder) loss must amount to as much as £1000; although a portion of the machinery was got out without much injury; and the total value of property destroyed during the brief space of five minutes is, it is said, about £5,000. In the evening large numbers of persons from Auckland visited Parnell to see the ruins, and it was a general subject of wonder that so few persons had been injured. But the effects of the whirlwind were not confined to the land.

Two or three vessels in the harbor narrowly escaped being sunk. The captain of the Tyburnia happened to be standing on the poop deck of his vessel at the time, and saw the whirlwind approaching. It struck the vessel on the broadside, and passed between the fore and main masts, shaking them violently. The whirlwind then passed on between the stern of the Ganges and the bows of the Owen Glendower, upsetting the punt belonging to the former, and giving the latter a severe shaking. It afterwards came in contact with the Derwent Hunter, and for a moment that vessel was in imminent danger of being capsized as she was struck with great force on the broadside. The cutter Petrel, from Wangarei, had just dropped her anchor, when the whirlwind struck her, tearing away her sails, and knocking overboard one of the men on deck, named Henry Smith. A boat was immediately put out and the man who held on to a cask, which was also knocked overboard, was saved. There were other casualties in the harbour, but none of them, we believe, were of a serious nature.

It is not at all improbable that the whirlwind, which was in the shape of a circling cloud, and was seen clearly by many persons in Auckland, was highly charged with electricity, and that this may have increased the extraordinary force and destructiveness of it.

Southern Cross 5 November 1863

1 comment:

  1. Oooh that would have been wicked indeed. Just shows you the power of mother nature can strike without warning. Great post